Learning at Princeton

Princeton’s liberal arts education encourages curiosity, expands critical thinking, and prepares students to work in complex, diverse, and changing environments. We are here to support you during your transition into our learning community and throughout your Princeton career. Use the FAQs below to explore some of the questions that you may have about academics at Princeton, and don’t hesitate to ask your Director of Studies or click the Ask a Dean button in the top right-hand navigation if you can’t find the answers!

Frequently Asked Questions

As you may imagine, there are some questions that arise anew with each entering class. We’ve taken the opportunity of answering some of the more common questions on this page. We will add to the FAQ list over the summer as new issues of common concern come up in the Ask a Dean correspondence. If you want more information about any of these topics, use the Ask a Dean link on the upper right-hand side of this page.

Our “advising community” model includes several kinds of advisers ready to help out with everything from planning your courses to managing periods of stress.

Your residential college Dean and Director of Studies oversee your academic progress during all four years here. Don’t hesitate to talk to them about your intellectual passions and coursework, academic opportunities, and helpful resources to enrich your academic experience.

Your Director of Studies or the School of Engineering Dean will also assign you a faculty adviser. Students are matched as much as possible with faculty who share their interest, yet faculty advisers are also good generalists who have a feel for balancing workloads, exploring new areas, fulfilling requirements, and helping you think broadly about how to make the most of your Princeton experience. Your faculty adviser will be a sounding board for your ideas and plans throughout your first two years at Princeton, starting with a one-on-one meeting during Orientation to discuss your fall courses. 

If you want to talk with someone who has been in your shoes, turn to your Peer Academic Adviser (PAA). The PAAs are upperclass students affiliated with your residential college, who will gladly share with you their perspectives on majors and certificate programs, balancing your courseload and extracurriculars, and taking advantage of academic resources like the McGraw Center and the Writing Center, and Study Abroad. Your Residential College Adviser (RCA) can also provide you with the perspective of an experienced student.

Last but not least, to get the most out of Princeton’s advising community, YOU need to be proactive. If you want to take full advantage of our advising resources, seek out as many perspectives as you can! And if you don’t know where to start, talk with your PAA, your RCA, or your Director of Studies—they’ll point you in the right direction.

See also Connecting with your faculty adviser.

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Princeton A.B. and the B.S.E. degrees are both undergraduate degrees in the tradition of a liberal arts education, which means acquiring breadth across many fields and depth in one. Both degrees require students to complete eight semesters of study, to take a writing seminar, and to fulfill general education requirements across several areas. The A.B. and the B.S.E. degree also have significant independent work components. All A.B. students write a senior thesis, and most B.S.E. students do a thesis or equivalent design project. B.S.E. students have to take at least seven humanities and social science courses (most take more), while over 60% of the students in the A.B. program take at least one course offered by a department or program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

There are, of course, differences between the two degrees. The B.S.E. program requires you to be more comfortable with science and math. Moreover, the A.B. degree requires 31 courses and the B.S.E. requires 36. These differences, however, are less than they appear at first glance. For instance, the A.B. degree requires four semesters of independent work that are not tallied as part of the 31 credits needed for graduation. In the B.S.E. program, all independent work counts among the 36 courses. Another difference is that B.S.E. students declare their major at the end of the first year, while A.B. students do this in the spring of sophomore year. Yet, in many A.B. majors you need to take foundational courses in sophomore year as well.

Every year some students choose to switch from one degree program to the other. Permission is granted for such changes on a case-by-case basis. Students switching to the B.S.E. program must plan to meet the basic first-year B.S.E. requirements, especially in physics and math. Students switching to the A.B. program must plan for the A.B. language requirement. Entering students will be given an opportunity to request a degree change over the summer. (See the timeline for the deadline.) After the school year begins, a student considering a degree candidacy change should consult first with the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (258-4554, Room C-209), and then with their residential college dean or director of studies.

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Princeton’s general education requirements play a critical role in our liberal arts education approach, which aims to sharpen your ability to think broadly and freely. It’s a unique opportunity, coupled with the responsibility to challenge yourself in ways that will expand your thinking, strengthen your analytical and communication skills, and deepen your empathy for the world around you. This may mean taking a course that you have not considered before, trying out for an acapella group when you’ve never performed for an audience, or having transformative late-night conversations with your roommates. 

General education requirements consist of the following:

Writing Seminar: The skills you gain in “Writing Sem” during your first year—how to pose a strong question and craft a well-informed original argument, how to work within and across disciplines, how to tap into the vast resources of Princeton’s libraries and collaborate with your peers—will be indispensable for your academic and non-academic endeavours, at Princeton and beyond. 

Foreign Language Requirement: Proficiency in a foreign language enables you not only to communicate with other people, but also to acquire new ideas and information and develop cross-cultural understanding. Thus, students in the AB program are required to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. BSE students do not have to complete the foreign language requirement, but many choose to do so. There are a number of ways to fulfill this requirement, including studying a language at Princeton. 

Distribution Requirements: Distribution requirements allow you to explore topics that are unfamiliar and sound interesting, and ensure that your academic studies do not become too focused too early. Distribution requirements are easily fulfilled within the four years of your overall degree program. An introductory course to a possible major, an arts course offered through the Lewis Center for the Arts, and/or a Freshman Seminar are all great ways to satisfy some of the distribution requirements during the first year and, possibly, discover a new intellectual passion.

Beginning in Fall 2020, there are several changes to Princeton’s general education requirements. For the Class of 2024 and beyond there will be a Culture and Difference (CD) distribution requirement, which can be fullfilled concurrently with another distribution requirement. You will also see dual distribution requirements for some courses in Course Offerings that don’t include a CD. In these cases, the course can fulfill either of the two designated requirements, but not both. 

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AP credit can be used to place into higher level courses in certain subjects. (See the AP table for details.). In other words, you can avoid having to repeat what you have already learned and can advance to new material. You can also use AP credit to satisfy the A.B. foreign language requirement, B.S.E. requirements in physics, chemistry, and math, and some A.B. concentration prerequisites.

AP credit cannot be used to fulfill the writing or distribution requirements and it does not reduce the number of courses required for graduation (31 for the A.B. degree, 36 for the B.S.E.) unless a student has sufficient AP credit and is granted advanced standing.

Princeton academic departments are reviewing their credit policies for AP tests administered in May 2020 because changes in coverage and format could affect the relationship between these tests and the material covered and assessed in analogous Princeton courses. Our primary concern is that students be placed appropriately for success in our sequenced courses, and so some language and science departments will require incoming students to take a Princeton test to confirm course placement and credit. Other departments, including Economics, English, and History, have determined there will be no change in the credit policies for tests in these areas.

 Provisional IB and A level score reports for 2020 will be used for placement purposes only.

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Unless you were admitted through Princeton’s transfer program, Princeton does not award credit for college courses taken before you matriculated. After you enter Princeton, you can earn credit for pre-approved courses taken at other institutions over the summer or during a leave of absence – A.B. students can count up to three, B.S.E. students up to four. Such courses can be counted towards the total course credits you need for your degree or used for partial fulfillment of certain distribution areas. We also strongly encourage students to study abroad at other universities during the academic year!

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We use a number of tests to gauge your correct level in various subjects. When possible, we use your AP, IB, A-level, or even SAT scores to make placement recommendations. However, we also have our own placement tests in languages taught at Princeton and computer science, which are available online prior to orientation, and tests in physics and chemistry, which are typically administered during orientation. Students taking 100-level math, MAT 201, or MAT 203 determine their placement in the first days of MAT INFO 1 or MAT INFO 2.

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You must take the language placement test if you are an AB or BSE student planning to continue taking language classes in a language you have already studied in high school and you did NOT place into the 200 level with AP, IB, or A-level tests. (See the AP table for required scores.). Students are not allowed to place themselves in 100-level language classes in order to ensure that everyone in the class is at the appropriate level and that you will all have a productive learning experience.

We also recommend that you take the language test if one of the following circumstances apply:

♦ You are an AB student who would like to place out of a language or receive advanced placement credit and you have not done so through AP, IB, or A-level tests

♦ You are a BSE student who would like to receive advanced placement credit for a language and have not done so through AP, IB, or A-level tests OR it’s conceivable that you might switch to the AB program and would like to demonstrate that you can place out of the AB language requirement.

If you would like to study a new language at Princeton, you don’t need to take the language placement test; you may simply register for the first course in the language sequence (normally 101). For the A.B. requirement, it is advisable to get started as soon as possible since beginning language courses are only offered in the fall term.

If you wish to place out of the language requirement in a language that isn’t tested at Princeton, we may arrange for you to take a placement test elsewhere. Talk to your director of studies about this option.

See also: announcement on Information Regarding the Fulfillment of the Foreign Language Rquirement at Princeton. 

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Unlike many other places, students at Princeton don’t select courses until Orientation. This gives you a chance to have many conversations about your choices. During Orientation, you will then talk with other students and faculty members at the Academic Expo and meet with your faculty adviser and Peer Academic Adviser in small groups for introductory conversations about your interests. On the following day, you will select four fall term courses (the standard load) during a one-on-one appointment with your faculty adviser, who will have your high school record and test scores to help with placement. You’ll also be able to make changes without a fee during the first two weeks of classes.

No need to feel rushed, though! There are things you can do to prepare yourself well ahead of time: think about your interests, goals, and study habits, review Course Offerings (our online course catalog) and look at the Undergraduate Announcement for information about prerequisites and majors. If you’re considering a career in the health professions, visit the Health Professions Advising website for information on academic requirements. Finally, over the summer, you will complete ClassPath, online advising mini-courses that will teach you more about Princeton’s curriculum and help you make your academic decisions.

Students often plan to take a program similar to the one they had in high school – math, language, English, science – whether they’re interested in those subjects or not. Why limit yourself that way? We recommend considering courses in an area that is new to you and that you did not have the opportunity to study before. All these activities will allow you to make the most of all of the conversations during orientation and the appointment with your adviser.

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As you embark on your college career, you may have no idea what you want to major in or you can’t decide between several possibilities, or perhaps you may feel you know exactly what you’d like to study. The first thing to bear in mind is that you won’t choose your major for another year or two; in the meantime, take time to explore! A.B. students normally declare a major (called a concentration at Princeton) at the end of sophomore year, B.S.E students normally declare a major at the end of their first year .

To help you choose your major, consider where your interests lie, how you hope to make a difference in the world, and where you would find the best intellectual community of faculty and fellow students. Many of you may also be thinking ahead to potential career paths, but you will build valuable knowledge and skills in every major, and any major can lead in a variety of interesting directions. (See the Center for Career Development Alumni & Student Stories for a few examples from recent graduates.) Certificates are also a rewarding way to complement your major, pursue other passions, and develop other skills. 

There are many resources at your disposal to help you explore majors, including your faculty adviser, peer advisers, B.S.E. “interactors,” faculty departmental Directors of Undergraduate Studies, your college dean and director of studies, and, to the extent that your career plans may influence your choice of major, the Center for Career Development and the Office of Health Professions Advising. In addition, throughout the year, there will be numerous events that will give you an opportunity to become acquainted with each major. The Choosing Your Major web page provides you with an excellent portal to the advising resources at your disposal.

Above all, remember that your major, while important, is only one component of your academic life. It will be complemented by other classwork, your independent research, and your extracurricular experiences at Princeton.

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Princeton’s courses vary from small seminars (e.g. Freshman Seminars and Writing Seminars, usually limited to 12-15 students), to medium-sized lecture courses with a required weekly discussion session (a “precept”), to large lecture courses (sometimes up to 200-300 students), again with a precept. The standard class meeting time will thus be 3-4 hours per week, but some natural science or engineering courses also have an additional weekly lab session (normally 3 hrs.), on top of the weekly lectures and precept.

Courses also vary in the types of assignments they require. Many STEM courses assign weekly problem-sets (aka “p-sets”), whereas humanities courses often focus on readings and papers. At the end of the semester, some courses require a term paper, and some have a final exam, a final “project”, or even a “take-home exam” (that can feel half-way like a paper). It can be a good idea to have a mixture of different types of assignments in a given semester, especially at the end of the semester when all papers are due at the end of Reading Period – the so-called “Dean’s Date” – and all finals take place in the week and a half following Reading Period.

Princeton’s courses will likely challenge you by new expectations: courses will move at a rapid pace; you will be expected to solve problems in math and science at a higher conceptual level; you will read many unfamiliar texts that require new approaches. Moreover, you will be expected to learn the particular conventions and assumptions of multiple disciplines, often in your first semester at Princeton. It’s perfectly normal to feel that the study strategies that got you here are no longer as effective, but Princeton has many academic support resources to help you adapt and grow.

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The skills and knowledge you acquire in any course at Princeton will contribute to your success in a variety of different pathways after graduation. Your plans may also change as you are exposed to new classes and experiences at Princeton. So, follow your interests and they will take you where you want to go. For certain paths, however, there are specific courses you need to take. This is particularly true for engineering and health professions, for instance. You can learn more about preparing for health professions by going to Getting Started at Princeton for Pre-health First-Years. Engineering offers a variety of different fields, each with their own specific coursework. Note, however, that engineering majors don’t have to lead to engineering jobs, even though you probably have to major in an engineering field to become an engineer.

The Center for Career Development can help you think about pathways and the wide variety of ways they can be connected to your academics and experiences outside the classroom. For those who are interested in having a social impact, in the spirit of Princeton’s motto “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity,” the Program in Community-Engaged Learning (PROCES) and the Service Focus program offer a rich slate of courses and co-curricular opportunities that connect learning with public mindedness and service.

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Planning out your academic year with the rhythm of the semester in mind will help immeasurably with your transition to Princeton. The rhythm of the fall and spring semesters used to differ slightly at Princeton, but beginning this year, fall term final exams will take place in December before winter break. This makes the two semesters roughly equal in length and allows you to enjoy winter break without final papers and exams hanging over your heads! Here’s how both semesters work.

Following your initial course selection, the first two weeks of the term are known as the free drop/add, or “shopping period,” during which students can drop and add courses for free on TigerHub, with the advice and approval of their faculty adviser. Don’t be afraid to explore, but try not to wait until the add/drop deadline to add new courses - it might be hard to catch up on missed work!

After shopping period, the next significant academic event is midterm week, the sixth week of the semester. Not all classes schedule midterm papers or exams during this week, but the majority do. 

Midterms are followed by a week-long mid-semester recess, and upon returning to classes students have a three week window to decide about dropping a class or selecting the P/D/F grade option (for classes that allow the PDF option, as listed in the course descriptions in Course Offerings). By the end of the ninth week, classes are set in stone – grade options are final, and you can no longer drop a class.

The end of classes is followed by Reading Period, a nine-day window to prepare for exams and complete final papers, projects and exercises. The latest possible deadline for any written work is Dean’s Date, the final day of reading period. An eleven day final exam period follows Dean’s Date, and the semester (at last!) draws to a close.

You can see the academic calendar for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 (and all future semesters) on the Registrar’s site. Also, look for reminders from your Dean and Director of Studies to help you stay on top of your academic life!

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Wintersession is a two-week series of active and intriguing workshops, trips and events between Princeton’s fall and spring semesters. Wintersession is a hybrid between a conference and a festival, where students can take everything from ceramics to dance for klutzes to cooking classes to a coding bootcamp or head out on a local or regional trip. Sessions are led by student, faculty and staff who submit proposals and can receive funding to cover costs of their session. Registration opens in late October, and this year’s Wintersession will run from January 11 to January 24, 2021. All residential colleges and dining halls will be open so students can be on campus at no extra cost, and all of the Wintersession offerings (with the exception of a few trips) are free. Email wintersession@princeton.edu if you have any questions or want to get involved.

For many students, “academic support” or “extra help” in high school meant working with a tutor to “fix” something, or to make up for a gap in understanding. At Princeton, “academic support” is more like “academic coaching”: the most successful Princeton students take advantage of opportunities outside of a classroom to enhance their performance. Explore the kinds of resources available to you from the very beginning to become an even better learner. Our academic support resources are free of charge and available to all Princeton students. 

When you have course-related questions, the first person to turn to is the instructor, either in the form of your preceptor or the faculty member in charge of the course. They will be pleased that you ask for clarification of a concept or for insight into problems on tests and papers. Additional resources include the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, which offers group and individual peer tutoring in introductory chemistry, economics, mathematics, physics, and statistics, one-on-one consultations with trained specialists to help you understand your own study habits, and much more. The Writing Center offers student writers free one-on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on writing projects in any discipline. Counseling and Psychological Services in McCosh Health Center offers mental health support. 

You can also find wonderful academic resources within your on-campus communities, including The Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) for first-generation and/or low-income students, the Princeton University Mentoring Program, and Assistant Dean of the College James (Alec) Dun for student-athletes. 

Your residential college Director of Studies or Dean, your Peer Academic Advisers, and your RCAs will be happy to help you to identify what kinds of support will meet your needs. Keep in mind that it’s normal to feel challenged by many aspects of your academic experience, and we are here to help every step of the way!

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Don’t be surprised if sometimes your interests take you outside of the formal classroom setting. Explore our amazing study abroad programs, which include not only academic year opportunities but summer language learning programs and summer Global Seminars. There are also lots of ways to learn outside the classroom; look into connecting your academic work with service through Service Focus and the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES), and explore the possibilities that await you in the Office of Undergraduate Research. You’ll also want to get to know your professors and take advantage of leadership opportunities that will prepare you for fellowships, both as an undergraduate and post-Princeton.

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The first words of Princeton’s policy guide, Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, underscores our academic mission, stating that “[t]he central purposes of a university are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the teaching and general development of students, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to society at large.” The guide’s section on Academic Integrity continues: “The ability of the University to achieve its purposes depends upon the quality and integrity of the academic work that its faculty, staff, and students perform. Academic freedom can flourish only in a community of scholars which recognizes that intellectual integrity, with its accompanying rights and responsibilities, lies at the heart of its mission.” 

We expect all members of our academic comunity to uphold academic integrity and trust. Even before you arrive at Princeton, you will receive a copy of the Honor Code to sign and of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities to read. (Yes, read it!) During Orientation, you will participate in a two-hour workshop on academic integrity and receive a copy of the booklet Academic Integrity at Princeton. Your first-year writing seminar will then teach you the rules of citation in more detail. So, you will have all the knowledge to live up to Princeton’s highest purpose as an educational institution!

See also: How to Stay out of Trouble: Academic Integrity

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Please carefully review the new deadlines and procedures Labyrinth Books has established for Fall 2020 course books. They recommend students order all the books as they know they will need in a single order early in the order-window.

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